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Legislators consider mail-in ballots pilot project

by Brandon Roberts & Western News
| February 4, 2009 11:00 PM

Montana legislators are considering a bill to implement a mail ballot election pilot project within 17 of the state’s 56 counties over the next two years. If passed, residents in those counties could be voting from home in the next federal election.

Lincoln County is not among those that volunteered for the pilot project. But Leigh Riggleman, assistant election administrator for the county, believes voting by mail has many advantages.

“I would like to see our ability to choose to have a mail ballot,” Riggleman said. “We should have the freedom on how we cast our ballot.

“(Mail ballots) allow the convenience to study candidates and issues longer from the comfort of your own home instead of a hasty couple of minutes in a ballot booth on election day,” she added.

House Bill 18 is in the State Administration Committee. Following the bill’s two-year timeframe for the pilot project, legislators would receive a report for purposes of analysis.

The major change proposed in HB18 is the allowance of election administrators to conduct the federal elections in 2010 as a mail ballot election.

“I have found that voters seem to be more likely to vote and return a ballot that they receive in the mail,” said Riggleman, adding that more voters participating in the decision-making process “is always a good thing,”

Another option that lawmakers may consider is a proposed bill that bypasses the pilot project and automatically expands the types of elections a county could use by mail ballot.

Not yet assigned a bill number and referred to as LC30, that option if it became law would allow counties to administer an election as either mail ballot or at polling places, but not both, Riggleman said. She believes late registration would still be offered but that would need to be spelled out in the proposed bill’s language.

Proponents of HB18 say it considers the voting rights of all electors, allows election officials to properly handle the late registration process and could save counties up to $2 million.

The 2008 general election was witness to record numbers of ballots cast by mail.

In Montana, nearly 50 percent of the voters submitted ballots by mail. Lincoln County received 30 percent of their votes via mail.

“We are seeing a gradual increase in mail-in ballots with every election,” said Riggleman, adding that there is overwhelming statewide support on those measures from  the clerk and recorders offices and election administrators.

Mail ballots were first implemented in Montana in 1985 and are currently the standard voting mechanism for municipal, school and special elections.

“I encourage Lincoln County voters to contact our local legislators that they support this important bill.” Riggleman said. “They can also contact the elections office and we would be happy to visit with them as well.”